My standing room only ride from Brasov to Bucharest in Romania had emptied out in Bucharest. I may have been the only one in my car who stayed on. Before leaving for the border, about a dozen people got on with an interesting assortment of baggage. The only person to sit in my compartment was a middle aged woman with several large garbage bags of shoes--ankle high women's boots with fur lined tops in varying sizes. She was friendly and spoke Romania and Bulgarian, but no English. This limited conversation, so I continued to read my book, The Good Soldier Svejk, which I had picked up in the Czech Republic. In spite of the language barrier the lady with the shoes tried to be helpful; when a uniformed man came in to search our compartment, but not our luggage, she said "Busca la bomba" in response to the puzzled look on my face. I don't know if that was Rumanian, but I got the message. This was the first time I'd been on a train where they did a "busca la bomba".
During the ride to Bulgaria I walked around the car and saw that most passengers were carrying some kind of merchandise, mostly clothes or canned food. There was a little dealing going on with large rolls of cash occasionally displayed. Romania Passport Control and Customs was a few miles before the border, Bulgarian a few miles after. The Romania officials were professional and courteous, and unconcerned about the bags of merchandise. However as soon as we passed through the Romania border check the woman in my compartment got busy. She left the compartment and returned with four large nylon zipper bags and a roll of duct tape. With considerable effort she managed to cram all the shoes except one pair into the nylon bags, which she zippered shut and wrapped very securely with the duct tape. The one pair of shoes she could not get into the bags she stuck in her personal luggage, taking care to bury it in clothes and make sure the shoes would not show. The bags were then positioned near the door of the car. After the train crossed a river in a small valley that I assume marked the border between Romania and Bulgaria, the bags, hers and others, were thrown off the train.
Shortly after the bags were tossed the train stopped in Bulgaria at Customs and Passport Control. The shoe lady indicated to me and a friend of hers who had joined us that we were not to say anything about the one pair of shoes she had hidden in her luggage. My passport was checked and the Customs official, who spoke English, asked if I was carrying weapons, drugs, or more than $10,000 in cash. I answered no to all questions, and he thanked me and declined to check my luggage. He then turned his attention to the shoe lady. The conversation was in Bulgarian, but it was clear she and all the others in the car were considered suspicious and being questioned thoroughly. After the officials had given up on catching anyone, everyone was cleared for entry to Bulgaria. The shoe lady and her friends displayed joy and relief; if High Fives had been the custom I'm sure I would have seen many. She then waved good-bye with a big smile on her face and everyone but me got of the car. I saw her through the window meeting some people on the platform. I assume they then went to pick up her bags of shoes. I had realized by then that I was sharing a compartment with a Bulgarian shoe smuggler, in a car full of other smugglers. I had read that smuggling was common in this part of the world, but I was surprised at how open it was and how the mundane the goods were.
That was my exposure to smuggling in southeast Europe. I've read that guns, drugs and people are also smuggled through Bulgaria and I'm glad I did not run into any of that. Smuggling clothes, food and shoes is different; these were just merchants trading common goods with blatant disregard for the laws.
After all the smugglers there appeared to be no one left in the car besides me. The train also started moving much slower; I was to learn that there are no fast trains in Bulgaria. The train passed through low mountains, dry fields and occasional flocks of sheep. The land was clearly much less fertile than in Poland a few hundred miles to the north. We entered Bulgaria in early afternoon and for the rest of day and into the night the scenery fluctuated between mountains, dusty fields and flocks of sheep. Late in the evening we arrived in Sophia.
From Sophia I headed to Veliko Tarnovo, a small town that was the former capital of the Bulgarian Kingdom. It is on a river winding through the tree covered mountains in the center of Bulgaria, and is a beautiful place.
My last stop in Bulgaria was Plovdiv. I considered visiting the Black Sea coast, which is supposed to be really nice, but decided that November was too late in the year for that. My guidebook indicated there were some interesting Roman ruins in Plovdiv, so I decided to have a look.
Other than accidentally crashing a bachelor's party I didn't have any wild times in Bulgaria, but still enjoyed my stay. The best thing to do in Bulgaria is to hang out and see things at leisurely pace. People are friendly, prices are cheap, and the country is beautiful. I only visited three places and stayed nine days total in the country, but I'd like to go back and do more.